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Post-Brexit Reflections

Back in May, ahead of the referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or leave, Guy Edwards penned an op-ed in the Boston Globe explaining why Brexit would make realizing climate change cooperation significantly tougher. In the wake of the Brexit vote, he reflects on what's next for Europe. Guy Edwards is coauthor of A Fragmented Continent.

Despite the vote in favor of Brexit, I feel resolutely European. Our generation grew up as the Cold War drew to a close and the Berlin Wall came down. Our continent shares common values and ideals: freedom, equality, democracy, multilateralism, and the international rule of law. Our generation has for the most part embraced the freedom of travel to live, work and study across the continent; reinforcing our love and respect for each other's cultures.

The dust from Brexit's Pyrrhic victory will take months if not years to settle, but our values should not be allowed to disintegrate. The rise of right-wing populism must be confronted.

The British government will attempt to reach some kind of settlement with EU Member-States. The message from across the channel could well be hostile. European leaders will face pressure to make Britain pay for its treachery to dissuade other countries from attempting to jump ship. There is a risk, of course, that a breakdown in talks between the EU and UK could simply damage us all further. This will require a careful balancing act by the UK and EU governments, which emphasizes constraint and compromise.  

The atmosphere in which this process takes place matters deeply. Some animosity between European governments and politicians could be inevitable and our media will likely relish the printing of any stories of confrontation.

European citizens on the other hand must avoid succumbing to nationalist sentiment. Roughly 52% or 17.4 million Britons lashed out against the EU, but their main motives for voting leave rested on fears of immigration, austerity, a rejection of the establishment and the lack of opportunities. The EU was largely a scapegoat caught in the crossfire.

British society and the world have witnessed an electorate recklessly self-harm itself. The EU has received a major blow, but as European citizens we must not allow our values and ideals to be threatened or diminished. The 48% or 16.1 million people who voted to remain must continue to work to safeguard these values and persuade those who voted leave to join us.

In the turbulent weeks and months ahead we will adjust and find new ways to continue to work together to confront our common challenges as a continent. Among the top priorities are building more prosperous societies for all citizens, fighting right-wing populists and terrorism, helping refugees, tackling climate change, promoting renewable energy, and reducing our reliance on Russian gas.  

This work will be impaired by the fallout from Brexit, but it must not stop. The role of civil society and the diverse and multiple partnerships and alliances between citizens across Europe and indeed globally will be crucial in this period. Brexit may have stolen the result, but it will not steal our future.

This article was first published in the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University blog.

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